Climate change challenges

19 January, 2009

water tanks
A view of the Immigration Museum water tank from the building windows opposite the museum.
Image: Museum Victoria
Source: Museum Victoria

Museum Victoria is taking steps to monitor and reduce its carbon footprint. This assessment of the environmental impact of the museum’s activities will help plans to minimise emissions and promote sustainable practices.

Facilities and Sustainability Manager Dermot O’Sullivan states that the main challenge for Museum Victoria is “managing water, energy consumption, and waste production,” but adds that there is already a high level of grassroots commitment from staff.

In 2004, the first 4500 litre rainwater tank was installed at the Immigration Museum; there are now four tanks in total with storage capacity of approximately 20 000 litres. Water from these tanks is used to clean the courtyard, saving about 12 000 litres of ‘town water’. Additional underground tanks were also installed in December 2008 at Melbourne Museum.

The prospect of using reconstituted sewer water for grey water at Melbourne Museum, and accessing ground water sumps for irrigation, is currently being explored. While there is not yet funding for museum buildings to convert fully to solar or wind-farm energy, O’Sullivan says the museum will continue to investigate solutions as technology changes and develops.

As a result of a trial in mid-2008 at Melbourne Museum, a well established office recycling system is in place in parts of the building, which complements the previously established public space and general waste recycling programs. This trial will now be introduced across all museum sites, resulting in an anticipated re-direction of 70 to 90% of office waste from landfill.

Ensuring more efficient energy consumption is another significant challenge, as retro-fitting museum venues – some of which are reasonably old – with the full range of energy saving devices available (such as light movement sensors, LED lighting, and variable speed drives) will be a major undertaking, but a welcome one, when funding becomes available.

O’Sullivan notes that having a “common understanding, documenting what we’re doing to make our case, and developing a united approach to it” is essential to reaching targets in reducing carbon emissions, as are partnerships and consultations with local and community groups.

Life cycle assessments and the Climate Change Committee

RMIT has been engaged to conduct a workshop for exhibition designers to introduce them to the principles of life cycle assessment -  enabling the calculation of carbon emission of an event from cradle to grave, and reviewing everything from the sourcing of raw materials, to the energy needed to produce the products used, the transport impact, and the carbon cost of disposal. Exhibition curators and designers can then be fully informed about the environmental impact of projects in future.

Behind the scenes, the Climate Change Committee, a staff-run collective, is focused on improving environmental awareness “back of house”; it has held information sessions and film screenings, and promoted recycling and alternative forms of transport. Staff have also participated in workshops and accredited “carbon accounting” courses.

Exhibiting the cost of climate change

Some of the techniques employed to make the museum more environmentally friendly may find their way into the public domain on display as components of exhibitions; Melbourne Museum already hosts the Water Smart Home. Immigration Museum exhibition Waters of Tuvalu, which exposed the plight of a Pacific nation whose entire existence was threatened by rising sea levels, involved an independent consultant who ensured the project was “carbon neutral”.

The plywood Christmas tree that has been on display in the foyer of Melbourne Museum over the holiday period received a “life cycle assessment”  of its environmental cost (throughout the processes of manufacture, transport, display and disposal), compared with a traditional pine tree.

The science behind climate change – significant increases in temperatures in some parts of the globe and temperature extremes in others, thermal expansion, and rising sea levels as a result of human-released greenhouse gases over the last hundred years – and our capacity to limit or arrest the current trajectory, has inspired a number of museum exhibitions. The American Museum of Natural History is currently showing Climate Change: the Threat to Life and maintains a blog on the topic.

Research and studies

Several Museum Victoria researchers are collaborating with other museums and universities to glean a more sophisticated and detailed empirical understanding of the global situation and outlook, and are engaged in joint  research projects concerning aspects of climate change.

Various mathematical models – based on interpretations of trends to date and an assessment of the status quo –  are used to make projections about the future. Some analysts argue that even if no new greenhouse gases were released, or fossil fuels burned, the amount of carbon dioxide already circulating in the atmosphere might still have devastating consequences.


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